FAA investigating drone flying near news helicopters

by: Graham Johnson Updated:

Loading

Monday evening, as Chopper 7 covered a fire in a Spanaway salvage yard, KIRO-TV Chief Photographer Scott Crueger turned the camera toward another helicopter taking video for KOMO-TV and KING-TV.

A drone was flying above it.

"We got a drone out here somewhere," Crueger alerted colleagues in the newsroom.

He guessed the drone was flying at about 1,500 feet.

It isn't easy following something so small with a helicopter camera, but Crueger kept on it.

He followed the drone as it descended, and spotted a man on the ground operating it.

"I was thinking, ‘How could you be that stupid?'" Crueger said later.

If helicopters strike anything, like birds, they can easily fall out of the sky.

Moments before the drone buzzed the KOMO/KING helicopter, Chopper 7's pilot saw it about 50 feet above his own blades, a dangerous scenario because the vortex from the blades can cause objects above to be sucked into the helicopter.

"He went from near our helicopter to very near the other helicopter," said Crueger, who operates the camera in the helicopter's back seat. "Either helicopter contacting this toy would have been catastrophic.”

The close encounter happened two days before the anniversary of a KOMO helicopter crash that occurred during a takeoff near the Space Needle.

The pilot and photographer were killed.

"We take any threat to our safety very seriously," Crueger said.

So Crueger followed the operator from the air as he collected his drone and then walked into a nearby house. Chopper 7's pilot contacted the FAA, which is investigating.

Flying a drone at 1,500 feet is far higher than the 400 feet allowed by law.

Federal rules also require a hobbyist to keep a drone within sight, and drones must always avoid manned aircraft.

Operators could be fined, although an FAA spokesman said the precise amount depended on the nature of the violation.

On Tuesday, a KIRO 7 crew went to the Spanaway house the drone operator had entered.

The woman who answered the door said police had been by, but denied anyone who lived there had a drone.